The joy of the Psalms

“How I cried out to you, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those hymns of faith, those songs of a pious heart in which the spirit of pride can find no place! I was new to your true love… How I cried out to you when I read those Psalms! How they set me on fire with love for you! I was burning to echo them to all the world, so that they might vanquish man’s pride. And indeed they are sung throughout the world and just as none can hide away from the sun ‘none can escape your burning heat’ (Psalm 29:5)… I wished that (the Manichees) could have been somewhere at hand, unknown to me, to watch my face and hear my voice as I read the fourth Psalm. They would have seen how deeply it moved me. ‘When I call on your name, listen to me, O God, and grant redress; still, in time of trouble, you have brought me relief; have pity on me now, and hear my prayer’ (Psalm 4:1). How I wish they could have heard me speak these words! And how I wish that I could have been unaware that they might hear, so that they need have no cause to think that my own words, which escaped from me as I recited the Psalm, were uttered for their benefit alone! And it is true enough that I would not have uttered them, or if I had, I should not have uttered them in the same way, if I had known that they were watching and listening… They would not have understood how this cry came from my inmost heart, when I was alone in your presence”.

St. Augustine: Confessions Bk. IX.4 (R.S. Pine-Coffin, transl.)

Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

Earlier in the week I posted my preliminary thoughts on this passage. Here’s the finished product.

Steer into the Skid

Looking around the congregation this morning I see that there are more than a few of you here who are old enough to have learned to drive on a car with rear-wheel drive. Could you just raise your hand if you learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car? Thank you. Do you remember what it was like the first time you drove a front-wheel drive car? Everything was in the same place, although of course, there was no big drive train tunnel down the middle of the car, which made for a little more room, especially in the back. But somehow it felt different when you were driving, didn’t it?

There was one particular area of driving where it not only felt different – it was very different. Those of you who learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car – do you remember what they told us to do when we got into a skid? We were supposed to steer into it! This of course felt completely wrong and counter-intuitive; if you had lost control of your car and it was sliding toward the ditch, the natural thing to do was to steer away from the ditch, not toward it! But given that the back wheels were the driving wheels and the front wheels were the steering wheels, what was necessary was to get the front and back wheels in line with each other again, so as to bring the car under control. That’s why they told us to steer into the skid; it was a faster way to regain control of your car.

Or so my driving instructor told me! I must say that the few times I ever went into a skid, I don’t think I did as I was told. Natural instinct was to steer away from the skid, and when you lose control of a car, it’s usually natural instinct that takes over. It’s so difficult to do the things that we know in our head will work, when they just feel completely wrong.

This is a problem that Christians have to face all the time. So often, in our walk with Jesus we run into paradoxes: things that don’t seem to make sense, but that Jesus seems to think are right at the centre of the Christian life. The first will be last. If you want to be the first in the kingdom, then be the servant of all the others. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the religious leaders. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And, in today’s gospel reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s this all about?

This week’s gospel reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s. Last week we read about Jesus gathering his disciples together and asking them a question: “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asked them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus affirmed that this was indeed the right answer and told Peter that it was God who had revealed this truth to him.

Remember that in the time of Jesus the word ‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, was not just a religious word; it was a political word too. Israel lived under Roman rule, aided by corrupt Jewish leaders who were doing quite well out of the Roman occupation. That couldn’t be right, people thought; they were God’s chosen people and God would surely liberate them. God would send a king like good old King David in the past; he would drive out their enemies and set up a good and honest government in Jerusalem, and he would protect the poor and the widow and the orphan and restore peace and justice to Israel. That was the Messiah’s job description.

So if Jesus is the Messiah, then what’s the plan? Surely the next move is to develop a strategy for taking over the government. We should march on Jerusalem, pick up a few supporters on the way, choose our moment carefully, pray for God’s help, then stage a surprise attack, take over the Temple and have Jesus crowned as the King of Israel in the royal line of David. Jesus is the true Messiah, so God will vindicate him by giving him the victory over his enemies; Herod and Pontius Pilate will get what they deserve, and we will have peace and justice forever. That’s how God’s kingdom will come.

But Jesus, it seems, has a different idea. Yes, he’s going to go to Jerusalem, but the visit will be very different from what Peter and the others have in mind:

‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (v.21).

This is ‘steering into the skid’, to be sure! Jesus is talking dangerous nonsense, and Peter, who as always is quite confident that he’s in the right, needs to set him straight. “God forbid, Lord!” But then Jesus says the harshest words he ever said to a human being – and to his closest friend and the leader of his disciples: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv.22-23).

What a terrible thing to say to his friend: ‘The Devil is speaking through you!’ Why was Jesus so harsh? I think it was because it was not the first time he had heard this temptation. Way back in the desert when he was tempted after his baptism, the Devil had told him, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you bow down and worship me”. Of course, this wasn’t just about praying to the devil. No – we become like the one we worship. To worship the devil would have been to imitate his way of doing things – violence, coercion, oppression, killing. And it was such a temptation for Jesus, because everyone expected that this was how the Messiah would win! David did it, Judas Maccabeus did it, the Zealots did it, so what would be wrong with Jesus doing it too?

It would be wrong, because the Kingdom Jesus came to announce is not founded on violence and coercion. It’s about love from start to finish – God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for our neighbours, for the poor and needy, and even for our enemies. Setting up the Kingdom by violence wouldn’t change anything other than the name on the crown: ‘welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss’. Jesus had come to show something different: that if you are faithful to the Father’s love even to the point of death, God will vindicate you. ‘And on the third day, he will be raised’. “Trust me, people”, he was saying; “Steer into the skid, and God will make it come out right”.

This is the challenging thing, of course, for us as followers of Jesus. Jesus not only took this road himself: he called us to follow after him. And so we read,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (vv.24-26).

Crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans reserved for rebels against the Empire. They didn’t crucify embezzlers and petty thieves and religious fanatics. So when the people of occupied Judea saw a poor man carrying a cross out to a nearby hill with Roman soldiers around him, they knew what was coming: he was about to be executed. This is the bad news that Jesus is giving his followers. He was going to be executed by the Romans, because they saw him as a threat to their authority, despite the fact that he had never breathed a word of rebellion. He was going to respond, as he had taught his followers, by loving his enemies and praying for them not by resisting and striking them down. “And you must do the same”, he told the disciples. “You must be totally committed to this Kingdom-of-God movement we’re starting, to the point of being willing to give your life and still love those who murder you. That’s what it means to be one of my disciples”.

It sounds like bad news but in fact it’s good news: Jesus says, “This is the way to really find life”. You think you find life by taking the easy way, the less challenging road? You don’t. Steer away from the skid and you’ll end up in the ditch. Steer into the skid, even though it feels totally wrong to do so, and to your surprise, things will turn out right: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.

This is what it means to be a baptized Christian. When we are baptized, or when we bring children to be baptized, this is what we are signing up for. Let’s make no mistake about that. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3).  It’s a wonderful thing to be baptized, to be washed from sin and evil and to be adopted as a child of God. But it’s also a difficult thing: it’s a total identification with Jesus and all that he stands for. It’s a ‘no’ to the easy life, a ‘no’ to compromise, a ‘no’ to spending your whole life trying to be popular. It’s a ‘yes’ to following Jesus, a ‘yes’ to the way of love, a ‘yes’ to being faithful even when no one else goes with you.

We don’t tend to talk about this much in churchland, because we don’t want to frighten off the customers! But I think we do people a great disservice by not talking about it. And incidentally, it doesn’t usually attract faithful customers either. Statistics have shown, over and over again, that churches that are not afraid to challenge their members, to call them to commitment, to ask things of them, tend to be the ones that grow, especially amongst younger people.

Why? Because people respond to a challenge. People want a cause, something worthwhile to live for, even if it involves hardship. How many times have I heard family members of soldiers who died in Afghanistan say something like this: “He died doing what he believed in. He thought it was really important, and that’s why he was there”. That’s the sort of commitment Jesus is calling for. His kingdom-of-God movement is going to change the world in a revolution of love. Yes, it is going to involve suffering and hardship, but the final goal will be well worth the effort. He’s looking for people who are willing to pay that price and make that commitment. He has a name for them: ‘disciples’. We call them ‘Christians’.

I once heard my Dad say, “Some people take their Christianity like a vaccination: they inject themselves with a little bit of it in order to protect themselves against the real thing”. That’s how a vaccination works, you know! You inject a tiny bit of the disease into your body – not enough to harm you, but enough to alert your body’s immune system. That way when the real disease comes along, your body is ready to combat it.

Some people take church like that. Yes, let’s go to church on Sunday once or twice a month, that way when someone asks us we can say, “Yes, we’re religious, we believe in God, we go to church. That should be enough for God, surely! Total commitment? Oh no – we’re not fanatics or fundamentalists, you know!

Jesus tells us in this gospel reading that following him will cost everything and give everything. Here’s what Tom Wright says:

There are no half measures on this journey. It’s going to be like learning to swim: if you keep your foot on the bottom of the pool you’ll never work out how to do it. You have to lose your life to find it. What’s the use of keeping your foot on the bottom when the water gets too deep? You have the choice: swim or drown. Apparent safety, walking on the bottom, isn’t an option any longer.

So, brothers and sisters, Jesus’ call to us this morning is simply this: ‘Steer into the skid’. It feels like the stupidest thing to do, doesn’t it? “Come and follow me in the way of the Cross”, Jesus says. Be totally committed to this Kingdom movement, to the point that there is nothing you wouldn’t do for God and for his Son Jesus Christ. No matter what they say about you, no matter what they do to you, keep on following Jesus. If you do this, Jesus says, you will find your life.

You can’t enjoy the view without climbing the mountain. You can’t be a great jazz improviser without practicing your scales. You can’t win the marathon without the pain of daily training and a willingness to stick with it when your legs and your lungs are screaming out, “Stop, you idiot!” And you can’t find the true joy of being a Christian without taking up your Cross and following Jesus. So let us take up the challenge and walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. We know that God vindicated him, and he assures us that we too will find it to be the way of life and blessing. So let’s put our trust in him and do as he says.

Doug Chaplin’s thoughts on Jesus’ Summary of the Law

Doug Chaplin, formerly ‘Clayboy’, has recently moved his blog. He often poses insightful articles and questions about biblical studies. Today he’s asking about Jesus’ ‘Summary of the Law’, and specifically about his combination of the two commandments to love God and love your neighbour. Did Jesus originate this, or did it come from a previous source?

The reason for the question is that in Mark’s version of the Summary (Mark 12:28-34, cf. Matthew 22:24-40)), Jesus himself states it, but in Luke’s version (Luke 10:25-28), a lawyer is the one who comes up with the combination. Is the lawyer quoting an earlier tradition, or is he in fact quoting Jesus’ own teaching back to him?

Read more here, and leave a comment for Doug.

A partial enforced Internet fast

Some sort of box around the corner from my house apparently ‘went mechanical’ (as they used to say about non-functioning aircraft in the Arctic) a week ago. Apparently it is rather a big deal; it needs to be replaced, rebuilt, and then about fifty Internet users need to be reconnected to it. All this, apparently, might (might) be finished next week some time, so Telus tells me (“That’s technology”, the nice assistant said to me on the phone. I felt like replying, “So that’s Telus’ official answer to my question about why my Internet is going to be down for at least two weeks? ‘Technology sucks?'”). So Internet use is now restricted to my office at the church, and the local coffee shops (Hmm – is Telus in league with Starbucks?).

However, this might be a blessing in disguise. I remember C.S. Lewis speculating somewhere that if he had done more voluntary fasting in his life God might not have felt it necessary to put him on so many illness-related diets in his old age! I know I spend far too much time on the Internet; now that it’s unavailable to me at home, reading and family activities are multiplying! In my fifties, for the first time (prompted by Joe, God bless him), I’m reading Augustine’s Confessions, and have Boethius and Dante lined up to follow him. I’m also about three quarters of the way through my 2011 project of reading through the entire King James Version Bible (with Apocrypha). Just finished the Wisdom of Solomon last night.

God moves in mysterious ways…

Out of the Salt Shaker

Out of the Salt Shaker

By Rebecca Manley Pippert

A powerful book on sharing your faith with others

Many Christians are nervous about talking about their faith with others. In this book, Becky teaches us to relax, use the Bible, let our lives provide the witness to our faith, and speak the right word at the right time. Jesus is our example, and if we model our lives on his then we will be more faithful and effective at spreading the good news to others.

If you would like to be more comfortable talking with your friends about your faith, this is one of the best books you can read on the subject. 

Out of the Salt Shaker: a St. Margaret’s Book Study Group

Nine Tuesday evenings, September 20th – November 15th, 7:30 p.m.

 Sign up now and order your book online

Books available at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/

(make sure you order the 2006 edition)

 

Making up your own political reality

Since the Government of Canada announced that it would be restoring the ‘Royal’ designation to the Canadian Air Force and Navy, I’ve been following the response in the letters page in the Edmonton Journal, and I’ve been struck once again by how people like to make up their own political reality. Alternatively, it might just be that my fellow Canadians really are ignorant about our country’s history and political system.

I’ve noticed this before. For instance, I don’t know how many times I’ve read letters to the editor in the Journal claiming that ‘separation of Church and State’ is a principle of government enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. It is not. It is in the American Constitution, but it is not mentioned in the Constitution of Canada.

Now, personally, I think separation of Church and State would be a good thing to have in the Canadian Constitution because, as my namesake G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said, ‘Every time the Church gets in bed with the State, the Church gets screwed’. But the fact that I wish it was in the Canadian Constitution doesn’t mean that it is. Some people, apparently, don’t understand this.

The current flurry of letters about the ‘royal’ designation illustrates this. Now, let me say right off the top that (a) I’m ambivalent about the role of the Royal Family, even in my country of origin, England, to say nothing of my adopted country, Canada, and (b) I have never voted Conservative in my life and so have no particular interest in upholding actions of the Harper government, and (c) I am a Christian pacifist. So – I really, really ‘don’t have a dog in this fight’!

However, I think this letter to the editor in today’s Edmonton Journal demonstrates either ignorance or wishful thinking:

Why would Canada add the “royal” word into the military names when it was decided earlier to remove the British chokehold naming conventions once and forever?

Why rehash this silly nomenclature more?

If anyone wants the “royal” headings, go back to Britain, where you obviously want to be, and let the Canadians make decisions for themselves. If you are still serious about the “royal” tag, then let’s put it to a vote; fair enough?

The assumption behind this letter is that the monarchy is a British institution which we Canadians have left behind as we have forged our independent way, and that therefore restoration of the ‘royal’ designation is a step back into servitude to Britain.

But this is political fantasy. In the real Constitution of Canada (not the imaginary one in which, amongst other things, we find the principle of separation of Church and State), it is clearly stated that Canada is a constitutional monarchy and that the Queen is our Head of State. This principle is shot through the Constitution from start to finish (you can read it, if you have the energy, here).

Therefore, in Canada, the Queen is not the Queen of England, and Prince William is not (as I heard him described so often during the recent royal visit) ‘Britain’s Prince William’. In Canada, the Queen is the Queen of Canada. That’s what our Constitution says. I might not like it; I might see it as an anachronism or an affront to democracy and I might decide to protest and get myself arrested to try to change it. But until it is changed by amending the Constitution, that’s the way it is, and just to prove it, if I do get arrested for my protest and go to trial, I will be prosecuted by someone called a ‘Crown Prosecutor’!

Preliminary explorations in Matthew 16:21-28

This passage is the gospel for this coming Sunday and is the passage I will probably preach on. Here are some of the thoughts that have come to me as I have been exploring it. This is not a sermon (that will come later); just some preliminary mediations. I am now going to turn to the commentaries to see what they have to say. If you have any thoughts to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

‘From that time on’ connects this to the previous passage. In verses 13-20 we read about a time when Jesus and his disciples were in the area of Caesarea Philippi, and he asked them about his identity – first ‘Who do others say I am?’ and then ‘What do you say?’ Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus affirmed this answer and assured Peter that it had been revealed to him by the Father in heaven.

Central to this previous passage is the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. At the end of the passage Jesus had commanded his followers not to let anyone in on this truth. The reason is not hard to find. The word ‘Messiah’, in common speech in those days, was not just a ‘religious’ word; it had political and military connotations. Messianic pretenders didn’t just preach in synagogues; they led rebellions against the Roman empire. For Jesus’ followers to acclaim him as the Messiah would be to invite the immediate attention of the Roman overlords. It was not so long since John had been executed as a threat to the powers that be; Jesus knew what was in store for him, but the time was not yet, and so he downplayed the word.

With his disciples, however, he accepted the designation and immediately began to explore it. What did it mean for him to be the Messiah? They must put out of their minds all the notions of glory and victory and power. Yes, those things would come eventually (“for the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father”), but first there was a hard road to be walked – the road of the Cross. 

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This is the first time Jesus has predicted his death in Matthew’s gospel; there are three such predictions, but we probably shouldn’t take that number as being exhaustive, as the language used here is ‘From that time on, Jesus began to show…’ – in other words, this was a regular subject in their conversation from this point.

I find it interesting that the language is not just that of prediction but of demonstrated necessity – in other words, it’s not just ‘This is something that is going to happen’, but ‘This is something that I must do’. The word ‘show’ is also interesting. It seems to me that, given the language used, what was happening was that Jesus was ‘showing’ his disciples in the scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to do this. Not, of course in the literal sense of ‘showing them in the Bible that he had open in front of him’, as this would be an anachronism (scriptures were written on scrolls and were prohibitively expensive); the discussion took place from memory. What was involved was a reinterpretation of Messianic prophecy, possibly with specific reference to the ‘Suffering Servant’ passages in Isaiah (given their prominence in early apostolic interpretation of the Cross, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the apostles got that interpretation from Jesus). These passages are used to demonstrate that Jesus will be ‘despised and rejected’ by the leaders of the nation, will suffer and die, and then rise again on the third day.

I doubt whether the apostles got as far as the third day in their listening, though; I’m pretty sure they didn’t make it past ‘be killed’. This was not part of the Messianic job-description they had received, which was to liberate God’s people and win a great victory over their enemies. The Messiah was not supposed to ‘be killed’; if there was any killing to be done, he was the one doing it, just as David had defeated all the nations enemies and given them justice and peace. And so Peter protests:

22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

The irony of saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” seems to have escaped Peter. When you call someone ‘Lord’, it is not your place to tell them that they are going off in the wrong direction. Whatever else we mean by calling Jesus our Lord and Master, surely it is includes believing that he is smarter than we are! But of course the problem was that Jesus’ startling new revelation of what he was about to do didn’t fit in with Peter’s view of who Jesus was and what he should be doing. And that of course is not just ancient history; it happens today, as we all have our incomplete and inaccurate images of Jesus and then get worried and offended when he chooses not to fit in with them. Jesus the liberation fighter, Jesus the divine figure staring out of the icon, Jesus the upholder of conservative/progressive/liberal/socialist values etc. etc. Then when we find Jesus saying and doing things that contradict our vision, don’t we take him aside and say “God forbid, Lord!”?

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”.

How quickly things can change! Just a few verses beforehand Jesus has been commending Peter for his spiritual insight: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v.17).  Now Jesus issues this unparalleled and surely stinging rebuke to his beloved friend and chief disciple. What is behind this?

‘Get behind me, Satan’ surely recalls the temptations in the wilderness in chapter 4. The third temptation was to take the easy way to win the kingdoms of the world, by worshipping the Devil. Surely this was not just a matter of kneeling before him and praying to him, because we become like what we worship. To worship the devil meant adopting the devil’s ways, the ways of coercion, cruelty, violence, oppression etc. Obviously this would be much more appealing than the road of suffering that led to the Cross. And I can see how this would be very attractive to Jesus. The lure of the ‘zealot road’, the road of armed rebellion against Rome (which was surely the most obvious way to be ‘the Messiah’) must have been a constant temptation to him in his ministry.

This is surely what is behind the forcefulness of his rebuke to Peter. This was not the first time he had heard this suggestion; it had been whispered in his ears many times throughout his ministry, and he knew where it ultimately came from: the enemy who had tried to divert him at the beginning was still doing so. And so the great apostle became the Devil’s unwitting mouthpiece and became a ‘skandalon’, a stumbling block.

To ‘set the mind on human things’ is to employ common sense, worldly wisdom, human logic, rather than the wisdom of God which, as Paul says, is foolishness to the world. To take up the sword and lead the armies of God against the enemy may be risky, but at least it makes sense. To win a victory by allowing yourself to be killed defies logic. But it is not just the path for Jesus; it is also the call of his followers as well:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

‘Take up your cross’ has taken on a very sentimental meaning in today’s world. It has come to be a general phrase for living an unselfish life or a life of suffering. Alternatively, it refers to a particular suffering God is believed to have ‘laid on’ the person (‘my mother-in-law is the cross I have to bear, I suppose!’) – a difficult relationship, a cancer diagnosis, a demanding assignment etc.

Undoubtedly this spiritual reinterpretation has brought comfort to millions of people; however, it is emphatically not what ‘taking up your cross’ meant to Jesus’ first followers. When they saw someone carrying a cross, they knew that he or she had been condemned to die by the Romans, and the Romans reserved this penalty of crucifixion for rebels against the empire. Jesus knew he was called to undergo this penalty and to accept it without resistance, and he called his followers to do the same. “I am going to be crucified as a dangerous rebel, and the same thing is going to happen to you as well. And you must embrace this and endure it in the same way that I endure it” (Peter explores the implications of this for disciples in 1 Peter 2:21-25).

On the night before the crucifixion Peter will deny Jesus three times in order to save himself, but the disciples are called, rather than denying Jesus, to ‘deny themselves’, their own lives, liberties, and dreams, and embrace the call to suffering. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

The temptation is indeed to ‘save their life’, and we all know that temptation. “I don’t want to suffer, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to love my enemies. I want to protect myself; surely you can’t ask more of me, Lord?” but ‘more’ is exactly what he does ask; he asks us to tread the same path he trod. A movement that is intended to change the world will get nowhere if its followers put their own comfort and safety first. A movement that wants to change the world needs people who will be totally committed to it and will be willing to put their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness on the line for it – or rather, ‘for him’: ‘those who lose their life for my sake will find it’.

If we duck this challenge, as Peter ducked it on the Thursday night before Jesus died, we may well have guaranteed our safety but we will have lost something far more important – our integrity, our self-respect, our ‘soul’ even. This does not mean that there can be no forgiveness (Peter himself was restored and forgiven); it simply means that being a Christian involves being willing to pay the ultimate price, if that is what is necessary.

There is a positive way of looking at this as well. How do we ‘gain’ our life? How do we enjoy life in all its fullness (John 10:10)? Jesus says here that it isn’t by focusing on ourselves and doing all that is necessary to ensure our own safety or happiness. No – what we need is a cause worth living and dying for; we need a worthwhile challenge, something that we can commit our lives to, something that will give us a sense of purpose and direction. How many times have we heard parents and spouses of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan talk about how their loved one “Died doing what he believed in”. “He thought it was really important and he was willing to put his life on the line for it”. This is what Jesus gives us: a cause big enough to make the ultimate sacrifice worthwhile – the cause of the kingdom of God, the healing and renewal of the world according to God’s good purposes.

And once we are willing to pay this ultimate price – rejection, suffering, and death at the hands of our peers because of our allegiance to the true King, Jesus – then of course the other stuff falls into place as well. We are willing to turn from sin, to embrace hardship and suffering, because we know that the Christian life is not one long easy romp to heaven, but is the way of the cross. Difficulty and discouragement do not surprise us…

‘There’s no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim’

Rather, we see them as a normal and integral part of Christian faithfulness.

And we are not the losers in this bargain:

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

No one who follows Jesus faithfully will be the loser in the long term, although we might have to wait a while for the ‘long term’ to come about. As Jim Elliot famously wrote, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’.

Verse 28 raises issues because it makes it seem as if Jesus was mistaken about the timing of the coming of the kingdom. Alternately, we might have to revise our view of what Jesus meant by the coming of the kingdom. Possibly the events of his death, resurrection and ascension were indeed the coming of the kingdom. However, I don’t want to spend a lot of time exploring this as it is not central to the meaning of the passage.

What are a few more implications of this gospel passage for us?

We Canadian Christians do not suffer very much for Christ, and the consequence of this in our lives is that we try to avoid even the little suffering that we are called on to endure. Our Christianity is so often an easy road, focusing on the blessings of the gospel and avoiding any talk of holiness, of sacrifice, of service and suffering.

Part of this is the legacy of Christendom. We are used to having the world on our side, to having our values resonate with the values of the world around us. For hundreds of years the Christian scriptures and the moral standards of the Bible have been at least theoretically affirmed by the world around us. And so we have not learned the skills for being different, for marching to a different drummer and for enduring scorn and suffering when they result. We could learn a lot from religious minorities in this respect.

Jesus expected that the powers that be in his day would see his followers as a threat and would want to ‘take them out’. Today we expect that the world around us will like us (and flock to our churches), and if they don’t we ask what is wrong. Maybe we need to meditate a little on the implications of John 15:18-25 for Christian life today.

This coming Sunday we will be having two baptisms at our 10.30 service – baptisms of little children. We rejoice in this and we will try to make the event a joyful celebration. But maybe we need to remember that a baptism is also a death – a death to self and a commitment to a life of discipleship. The BCP baptism service called on the new Christians to ‘fight manfully under (Christ’s) banner against sin, the world, and the devil’. Maybe we need that note of realism, of challenge, of commitment, as we celebrate the baptism of our children on Sunday. Yes, it is a joyful thing to be adopted as a child of God – but there is a price to be paid as well.

Edmonton thanksgiving service for the Rev. Joseph Walker

From the Diocese of Edmonton:

August 22, 2011

A Requiem and Celebration of the Life in Christ and Witness of the Rev. Joseph Walker will be held on Saturday, September 10th at 3:00 pm at All Saints’ Cathedral (10035 – 103 Street). Clergy are invited to vest and the colour is white. Please join us for this time of praise and thanksgiving for our brother in Christ.